The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Transforming the Management System of an Organization

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In response to our request asking what topics readers would like to see addressed on our blog, Dan Bracewell said:

I’d like to see some posts about how to implement change in an organization. How does one get an organization to start looking at itself as a system? How does one get the organization to realize that the most important figures are unknown and unknowable? How does one convince an organization the importance of driving out fear? In short, how does one get an organization to listen to what Deming had to say?

I don’t think there are simple answers to the questions that take the form of “do this simple thing and you will have the results you wish to see.” This makes “selling” organizations on the idea of adopting the Deming management system more challenging. But I think it is a fundamental aspect of a good management system that cannot be avoided. Simplistic “solutions” may be easier to sell, but they don’t work. Managing an organization well just doesn’t allow for recipe solutions.

There are principles that can be fairly easily captured (respect people, improve using iterative experiments, use data to learn and test your understanding when possible but also realize that using data is not always possible…) but thought is still required to apply them within your organization.

As W. Edwards Deming said in The New Economics

image with quote by W. Edwards Deming - The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people. Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to.

That does not offer a simple recipe laying out what steps to take. But I do think it is a good explanation of the process. What should be implemented in your organization and what specific steps to take are not obvious, it requires applying the principles to your organization. And doing that requires building the capability of your organization (including your people) to operate using those principles.


You need to work with what you can and gain credibility with successes. Doing so will make others more and more willing to listen to you.

Making progress related to the individual questions Dan asked is a cumulative effort: as progress on any one is made, making progress on the others becomes easier. As people see the organization as a system they can more easily appreciate the importance of things that are unmeasurable (and visa versa) etc..

I have written about the ideas raised in the questions on my Curious Cat Management blog and on this blog: Habits, What to Do To Create a Continual Improvement Culture and How to Start Applying Deming’s Ideas on Management.

My basic belief is that the way to succeed along these lines is to help people improve and while doing so explain how what is done relates to the points you mention (fear caused the problem we had to fix etc.). Few believe you at first. After you help numerous times more people start to believe maybe the overall philosophy actually is worth listening to since you seem to be able to make things better and you keep tying it back to view the organization as a system, understanding variation (and what data can and cannot tell you…), etc..

As I wrote before on this blog: people take time to believe claims of changed management practices. Adopting a Deming management system is an iterative process. As you make progress you enable more progress to be made that would have been extremely difficult or unlikely to make prior to those previous changes. And you learn from current efforts what works well in your organization and what doesn’t work (at least as the organization is currently functioning). From that learning you can devise new experiments and use PDSA to tune the efforts (or learn that it is wise to abandon those attempts and try something else).

The transformation process is a never ending focus on continual improvement.

Related: Communicating ChangeStart small, with projects people actually care aboutChange has to Start from the Top (and you are the top of something): Webcast with David LangfordCulture Change Requires That Leaders Change Their Behavior


Categorised as: management systems, psychology, systems thinking


6 Comments

  1. Thanks, John. It is a real treat to see my name on the Institute’s blog. Thank you so much in taking an interest in helping. It means a lot.

    That quote is so true. That’s what is happening to me.

    I’ve taken to heart what you have already suggested: offering to help, identifying the source of problems (fear, variation, lack of training, etc.), and modeling SOPK. Your links here will keep me plenty busy for awhile.

    Working with what I have and gaining credibility, as you said, seems to be key. Despite people thinking I am ‘weird’ or at least ‘different’ with the methods I use, no one can deny that I have a solid handle on a very complicated and highly visible project. Though it is gradual, I am starting to see people listen to what I have to say. My supervisor recently told me he was glad I spoke up and wanted things to change.

    Be respectful, use data, be transparent, experiment, always learn, don’t pontificate, and always get better underlies everything I do.

    Thanks again for posting this. The Deming Institute has been a wonderful resource in helping me in my transformation.

  2. […] this idea is commonly voiced. It is less commonly an active part of the management culture to train, nurture and value all the minds in the organization. […]

  3. […] here (for some ideas on what methods to use when looking to transform the organization see: Transforming the Management System of an Organization, How to Start Applying Deming’s Ideas on Management and How to Get a New Management Strategy, […]

  4. […] talks about building relationships to earn the right to work together with staff to improve the organization. He did not just rely on the authority of his position, he […]

  5. […] Be patient, retain constancy of purpose and nurture the belief that this time really is different. Transforming the management system and people’s belief in it provides great rewards to those organizations that […]

  6. […] existing conditions that must be accounted for in every organization. Within that reality we must adopt strategies that achieve successes today and build the capability of the management system over […]

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